Business personality and the messaging triangle

By Russell Thomson | August 4, 2010

If you actively manage the three sides of your organisation’s messaging triangle by consciously developing the relationship between Portrayal, Perception and Expectation, you are more likely to nudge the market in your direction. However, get it wrong and the consequences of message dislocation can be costly and very long-term.

Examples of message dislocation abound: –

  • The big banks portray themselves as the friend of small business, yet are generally perceived by the small business community to be unsupportive when times are hard.
  • BP’s self-portrait as an environmentally-friendly business flies in the face of the emerging perception of the company as one which puts profits before safety and environmental care.
  • Consider the UK’s Valuation Office Agency, a government quango which portrays itself as the reasonable voice of commercial property tax-raising power, yet is perceived as being contentious, unreasonable and antagonistic.
  • And the UK government’s Foreign Office, portrayed as a progressive and sophisticated overseas support for UK business, yet perceived by some to be staffed by introverted, ‘risk-averse clones’.

It is easy to discount arguments such as these as the rabid claims of a disenchanted minority. However, mud sticks, particularly in our highly networked online social/business environment. A well-spun press release alone is no longer sufficient to counter an emerging negative market perception.

So, let’s consider the relationship between a) how a business formally portrays itself, b) how the day-to-day actions of employees can alter the perception of the business and c) the market’s expectations of the service provider. The first thing to recognise is that Portrayal, Perception and Expectation rarely align naturally for any significant period of time. There are simply too many external factors altering expectations and influencing perception. So the choice is yours; pray for divine intervention or take action to minimise message dislocation. Meeting the market’s expectations is a continuous work-in-progress, not just in delivering service value but in the portrayal of a higher sense of purpose and meaning which permeates the entire business and is perceived as having become part of the fabric of the organisation.

In short, it is no longer just about pitching service definition. It is about pitching the organisation, its culture, values, beliefs and ethos. This is a hard nut to crack because it is not just a question of marketing or a question of human resource management or a question of service delivery. It is a question of actively shaping and communicating the true personality of the business – its values, its standards, its ethos, what it stands for, its principles, as well as its services and solutions – in the knowledge that the entire organisation is on-board and has the skills, tools, belief and wherewithal to deliver.

The organisation in its entirety has to be seen to living the brand message, and delivering upon the promises being made to the marketplace. If those representing the organisation, through their informal words and daily actions, fail to dovetail what they say and what they do with the organisation’s self-portrait, then the ensuing credibility gap between words and actions is likely to have a detrimental effect upon the market’s perception of the business, and may ultimately bring about its undoing.

Take, for example, terms such as Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility or Climate Consciousness as the latest in a long list of buzz terms which have become fundamental to the way in which a business seeks to portray its morality and higher-value credentials. Talking the talk is all very well, and from there the ethical high-ground is clearly visible, but organisations are increasingly being asked, both formally and each day in informal conversation, to substantiate their claims and prove that they are walking the walk. Blink, stall, hesitate or fail to respond and the battle is surely lost. This is organisational positioning as an extension of service positioning. The further apart Portrayal and Perception become, the larger the credibility gap and the more likely that the market’s Expectations fail to be met, and so respect for the organisation, its people and its capability diminishes.

 Tightening the relationship between Portrayal and Perception, and ensuring that Expectation can be met, is a crucial new area of cross-discipline challenge within any services organisation. To gain an edge, the successful service provider must better coordinate each as part of an integrated approach to communication and delivery which proves beyond doubt that the organisation has a meaningful proposition, has taken a position on the important issues of the day and, importantly, is already ‘walking the walk’. Hoping to impress the market by spinning an idealistic portrayal of a service, in isolation, is no longer enough.


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